His Excellency John Ralston Saul
The Success and Challenge of Bilingualism in Canada Op-ed article prior to the French for the Future 2005 National Conference
April 25, 2005
Next Tuesday, French immersion and Francophone high school students from coast to coast to coast will get together to talk about whether Canadians are good citizens. Whether we are engaged enough, generous enough. In all, over 3,000 students will participate in simultaneous discussions. This is the annual French for the Future National Conference.
This is one sign of an evolving Canada. The students are not getting together to talk about French. There are going to debate their own citizenship in French.
What is it all about? A success and a challenge.
In three decades Canadians have turned themselves into a reasonably bilingual people. That doesn't mean everybody is bilingual. Nor do they need to be. But we now have a half-million students in Immersion and French first language education outside of Quebec. And the old core French programs are much stronger than they used to be.
The result is that each region of Canada now has a critical mass of its own bilingual citizens who can speak for them on any national question.
More than that: they are the cutting edge of a new multilingualism that I see growing in most parts of the world. We are a country dependent on our outside relationships, whether they be political, economic or social. And the increasingly common reality of that world is people who work and think in two, three, four languages.
And that is the other encouraging outcome of the growth in Canadian bilingualism. When I go into schools, which I do very, very often, I ask how many high school students in French immersion are taking a third language. Often the answer is more than fifty percent. In other words, we recognize that Spanish, Chinese, and increasingly German, are important. And our English–French bilingualism opens the door for students into these other languages.
So the French for the Future in all the cities from West to East, North to South, are a celebration of a remarkable Canadian success story. The students get great energy from these gatherings in which they realize the extent to which they are part of a national movement.
But there is a second, more troubling reason for this exercise. After three decades, the original ambition of bilingual and French language education has been more or less satisfied. We can now see what works, what doesn't. Most public commentary concentrates on what doesn't work. For those less involved in the issue, that may create an impression of general failure. That impression is wrong. What we are actually dealing with is the fallout of success.
Our schools have successfully created a bilingual system. The rest of our society –universities, businesses and governments – have not caught up with this new reality. So the school system doesn't yet have the proper societal support system around it. This can make students and teachers feel isolated, even discouraged. This is why there is an unacceptable level of drop outs from French programs in high school.
But the support systems are starting to come together. Not fast enough! But they are coming. For example, universities across Canada are starting to take a more sophisticated approach to attracting this new slice of potential students. They are beginning to offer first year adjustment courses for Immersion graduates who want to continue with a bilingual university education. And right across Canada universities are creating bilingual programs and courses of all sorts.
As for the private sector, it is still far behind the new linguistic reality. In French for the Future we work with a remarkable group of corporate leaders from Vancouver to St. John's who see the market role of multilingualism, both nationally and internationally. They believe the Canadian business community must move on the question of language skills to fulfill its international potential.
At the heart of all this work are the Canadian students – your children and the children of your friends or your colleagues or your neighbours. They are working hard to create a different and interesting life for themselves.
Canadians are proud of those who lead the way for us in science or sports or creativity or competitiveness. We should be just as proud of these bilingual students. Their success will be a success for all of us whether we are unilingual or bilingual or multi-lingual. These bilingual students will lead the way for us in a broader, more inclusive kind of communications in every field of endeavour. And that is at the heart of the idea of Canada as an open and diverse society with big national and international ambitions.